It’s been over a month now, and it still hurts. But it gets a little better each day.
For five months, basketball fans up here in Wisconsin were transfixed by our team’s march to the Big 10 championship and into the NCAA playoffs. That team would be the Badgers of the University of Wisconsin. The men’s team, to be even more precise. After last season’s run to the Final Four, UW’s first appearance in the national semifinals since 2000, we were all anticipating a big season this year, and we got it. The lads won a team-record 36 games, captured the Big 10 regular season and tournament championships, went to the Final Four again (the school’s first ever repeat appearance), knocked off an unbeaten team in the semifinals, and came within two baskets of the national championship. Why, then, should we still feel some pain about that final game?
Because we lost, of course. When you compete in athletics, or if you follow a team, your season will almost always end in a loss. If you end with a win but that’s not in the title game, then that means your season wasn’t even good enough to get into the playoffs, where championships are decided, and so the entire experience is not satisfying. You always want to be the team that cuts down the nets at season’s end. If you’re not, you have failed to achieve your ultimate goal.
But, as the Badgers and their fans have discovered, failing to win that final game does not mean you are a failure.
When pride still mattered.
Some years ago I read a biography of Vince Lombardi with that title. Written by David Maraniss and published in 1999, it is quite probably the best sports bio I’ve ever read.
Sometimes a publisher’s description of a book can be somewhat overheated, but in this case I think they captured the essence of the book:
More than any other sports figure, Vince Lombardi transformed football into a metaphor of the American experience. The son of an Italian immigrant butcher, Lombardi toiled for twenty frustrating years as a high school coach and then as an assistant at Fordham, West Point, and the New York Giants before his big break came at age forty-six with the chance to coach a struggling team in snowbound Wisconsin. His leadership of the Green Bay Packers to five world championships in nine seasons is the most storied period in NFL history. Lombardi became a living legend, a symbol to many of leadership, discipline, perseverance, and teamwork, and to others of an obsession with winning. In When Pride Still Mattered, Pulitzer Prize-winning author David Maraniss captures the myth and the man, football, God, and country in a thrilling biography destined to become an American classic.
Lombardi’s arrival in Wisconsin in 1959 continued a revival of Wisconsin sports. The Milwaukee Braves, who had arrived from Boston six years earlier, had reached the World Series in 1957 and ’58, winning the first one. The Packers, who had not won an NFL title since 1944, were about to begin an historic run of five championships in a seven-season span. Once again, Wisconsin sports fans had pride in our teams, at least on the professional level. For our top college teams, though, it was a different matter.
The long journey had a fast start.
The first thing you have to understand about Wisconsin, both the state and its largest university, is that this is a different kind of place. It is similar in many respects to other states, especially our nearest neighbors. We have more lakes than Minnesota, about half the farmland of Iowa. To be sure, we have many of the challenges that Americans in other states face, but there’s something about the Badger State that can be hard to put your finger on. After you live here awhile you begin to understand. There is almost an innocence about this place that few other places in America have. Wisconsinites tend to look at the glass as half-full, whereas most of the country seems more inclined all the time to see their glass not only as half-empty, but to demand that someone else fill it up so they can drink the whole glass.
Our largest university was founded in Madison in 1848, the same year Wisconsin became a state. About a half century later the men’s basketball team was formed, playing its first game on January 21, 1899, a 25-15 road loss to the alumni of Milwaukee Normal School. The program’s first All-American was Chris Steinmetz, a 5-9 forward from Milwaukee, who was one of the pioneers of the one-handed shot. At the end of his junior season in 1904, Steinmetz and the Badgers faced Nebraska for the unofficial western collegiate championship. Trailing 24-22 in the final seconds, the Badgers were going to run an inbounds play to set up Steinmetz for the game-tying shot, but a Nebraska fan sitting at courtside grabbed the arm of Bob Zuppke before he could throw the ball in. A brawl broke out and the Cornhuskers were declared the winner.
Under coach Emmett Angell, the Badgers captured the western title in Steinmetz’s senior season, 1905. During that All-American season Steinmetz averaged 25.7 points per game, a very respectable number even today, but especially so back then, when the entire team averaged only 37.8. He poured in 50 during a game against Sparta, a team record that stands to this day. After winning the western title, the Badgers went east to meet Columbia for the unofficial national championship in New York City. The game was marred by disputes over the officiating, because Columbia played under different rules and the game was constantly being stopped as the refs and coaches argued. The baskets in the Columbia gym had no backboards, just rims on poles, and the Columbia players would shake the poles whenever a Wisconsin shot got to the rim. Steinmetz suffered a broken jaw in the game, which UW lost, 25-14. Steinmetz was later selected Player of the Year by the Helms Foundation and was elected to the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1961, two years before his death at age 80.
Angell coached the Badgers to a share of the Big Ten championship in 1907 and repeated in 1908. In those days the league was known as the Western Conference; the first reference to the league’s current name was in 1917, when Michigan re-joined after a nine-year absence. Wisconsin dominated the league in basketball back in those days. Angell’s successor, Walter “Doc” Meanwell, led the Badgers to nine conference titles in his 21 seasons at the helm, interrupted by a two-year stint at Missouri in 1917-18 and 1919-20. (His Tigers went 34-2 during his tenure there, sandwiched around a year in the Army.) All told, Meanwell’s teams won or shared the league championship in ten of his 22 seasons as head coach, twice going undefeated. He practiced medicine in Madison from his retirement as basketball coach in 1934 until his death in 1953 at the age of 69.
During Meanwell’s three-year hiatus from Madison, the team was coached by Guy Lowman, who led the Badgers to the league title in 1918. Under Angell, Meanwell and Lowman, Wisconsin won or shared the Big Ten title 11 times in the league’s first 23 seasons of basketball competition. After Meanwell’s retirement, one of his All-American players, Harold “Bud” Foster, was named head coach, and he led the team to another title in his first season. Foster coached the team for 25 seasons and won the Big Ten twice more after that first time. The second of his three league title teams, the 1940-41 squad, was led by All-American Gene Englund and went all the way to the NCAA championship game and brought home the title, defeating Washington State, 39-34, in Kansas City. In those days the NCAA tournament was nothing like the 68-team, $870 million behemoth it is today. The 1941 tournament had only eight teams and was outclassed by the National Invitation Tournament, held in New York. It would be another decade or so before the official NCAA championship event would begin to overtake the NIT in importance among basketball fans.
The 1941 title was sweet, but things went downhill after that for the program. Foster coached UW to another Big Ten title in 1947, but the team was knocked out in the first round of the NCAA tournament, which was still at eight teams. Nobody knew it at the time, but it would be 47 years before the Badgers would appear in the Big Dance again, and eight years beyond that for their next conference title.
The long drought.
Foster was gone after the 1959 campaign, his fourth straight losing season and second straight last-place conference finish. The next two coaches, John Erickson and John Powless, combined for a woeful .458 winning percentage. The UW Field House, which had been packed during the early years of the Foster era, was largely empty by now; games were attended by what was known as the “Faithful 5,000” and the old barn was filled to capacity only when big-name teams like Marquette or Indiana came to Madison, as well as for the annual state high school tournament. Bill Cofield became head coach in 1976 and promised to bring the program into the modern era. The Field House was spruced up and Cofield recruited NBA-caliber players like Wes Matthews and Claude Gregory, but he had only one winning season and was fired after finishing last in 1982.
What happened next only reinforced Wisconsin’s reputation as a basketball laughingstock. Athletic Director Elroy Hirsch, who had been a football superstar at UW before serving in World War II, hired Ken Anderson to replace Cofield. Anderson was a Wisconsin guy and had been a highly-successful coach at UW-Eau Claire, leading the Blugolds to 11 Wisconsin State University Conference championships in 14 seasons, including three trips to the NAIA Final Four. But Hirsch went on vacation to the Caribbean, and at the press conference in Madison announcing Anderson’s hiring, Hirsch’s stand-in flubbed Anderson’s name not just once but four times. To screw up a name like Ken Anderson even once takes some work; to do it four times, well, that’s taking flubbing to another level.
The result was predictable. Anderson resigned four days later and returned to Eau Claire, where he would coach 13 more seasons and win more championships. After the Anderson fiasco, Steve Yoder came in from Ball State and lasted ten years but never finished above sixth place. Under Yoder the Badgers did manage to qualify twice for the NIT, by then a consolation tournament for teams bypassed by the ever-expanding NCAA field. UW lost in the second round both times. Yoder’s best recruit was Michael Finley, who was a first-round draft choice of the Phoenix Suns in 1995 and would have a long 16-year career in the NBA, making the All-Star team twice and winning a title with the San Antonio Spurs in 2007. But Finley’s arrival wouldn’t be enough to save Yoder’s job.
The rest of the college basketball world was passing Wisconsin by during those days. Schools were building shiny new arenas and hiring well-paid coaches, some of whom were not above bending the rules to recruit prized talent. The NCAA tournament field continued to expand and attract large television ratings. Superstar players like Lew Alcindor (the future Kareem Abdul-Jabbar), Bill Walton, David Thompson, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and Michael Jordan became household names, even though the big stars were increasingly more inclined to leave school early in order to pursue riches in the pros. The Big Ten was dominated by Bobby Knight’s teams at Indiana, who won three national championships and 11 conference titles in his 29-year tenure. By the time Yoder was fired in 1992, the Badgers had endured 18 consecutive losing seasons in league play.
But the times, they were a-changin’ in Madison. Former football star Pat Richter became athletic director in 1989 and began rebuilding the football and basketball programs from the ground up. Barry Alvarez was hired as football coach and led UW to the Big Ten title and a Rose Bowl win in the 1993 season. After Yoder’s departure, former NBA coach Stu Jackson was hired to run the basketball team and in his second season UW was awarded an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament, the program’s first appearance in the field in nearly half a century. Finley scored 22 points to pace UW to a first-round win over Cincinnati, but despite his 36 in the second round against top-seeded Missouri, the Badgers lost 109-96 to finish 18-11. Four months later Jackson resigned, going back into the NBA to become general manager of the expansion Vancouver Grizzlies. In the ’94-95 season Finley had a monster year (20.5ppg) for Jackson’s successor, Stan Van Gundy, but the team sagged to a 13-14 record. Van Gundy was fired and Richter reached out to a man who had already made quite a name for himself as a college coach at smaller Wisconsin programs. With the hiring of Dick Bennett, Badger basketball began moving into the upper echelons of the Big Ten and even became a national title contender.
The Bennett era revives Badger hoops.
Dick Bennett was the quintessential Wisconsin kid, growing up in the small town of Clintonville. He played basketball, football and baseball at Ripon College. After graduation he coached basketball at several high schools in the state, leading Eau Claire Memorial to a state runner-up finish in 1976. Bennett made the jump to college hoops at UW-Stevens Point, which had been an also-ran in the WSUC for many years. That changed quickly. Bennett’s Pointers played hard-nosed defense and went to the NAIA championship tournament twice, losing in the 1984 title game. The star of that team was future NBA all-star Terry Porter. After winning 173 games and four WSUC titles in nine seasons, Bennett left Stevens Point in 1985 and moved up a rung to UW-Green Bay, a mid-major Division I program. Ten years coaching the Phoenix brought national attention to Bennett when his teams made the NCAA tournament three times and played everybody tough, including a 1994 upset of California and its future NBA star point guard, Jason Kidd. Many Wisconsin basketball fans felt Bennett should’ve been given the UW job in 1992, but the program went for flash with Jackson instead. Three years later, Richter made the call that brought Bennett to the Big Ten at last.
The Badgers responded immediately. Bennett was a taskmaster, demanding hard-nosed defensive play that often was criticized by fans for being slow and dull. Some players didn’t respond to Bennett’s coaching style. Homegrown star Sam Okey, who had led little Cassville High School to four consecutive state tournament berths and two titles while being recruited by Jackson and Van Gundy, was named Big Ten Freshman of the Year in 1996 but clashed with Bennett often enough that he quit the team in the middle of his junior season. Okey transferred to Iowa, where he would play only seven games due to injuries. But the Field House started to fill up again, and in 1998 the team moved into the glistening new Kohl Center, which was lauded as one of the best venues in all of college basketball. Bennett’s first UW team got an NIT bid and the ’97 team garnered an NCAA at-large berth, losing in the first round to Texas. The ’98 team finished under .500, but the Badgers got another NCAA bid in ’99, when they won 22 games, the most by a UW squad since Foster’s 1941 national champions finished with 20. (We didn’t know it at the time, but that ’99 appearance, short as it was with a first-round loss to Southwest Missouri State, would start a string of annual NCAA tournament berths that is still going strong, 16 years later.)
Then came the 1999-2000 season, and the Badgers clawed their way to another NCAA appearance and, amazingly, all the way to the Final Four, where they lost in the semifinal to eventual champion Michigan State. The team finished 22-14, giving the program its first ever back-to-back run of 20-victory seasons.
UW was expected to be a Big Ten title contender in the following season, but Bennett unexpectedly announced his retirement three games into the campaign, citing exhaustion. His top assistant, Brad Soderberg, who had starred on Bennett’s best Stevens Point teams in the mid-eighties, coached the rest of the season. Wisconsin finished 18-11 after being upset in the first round of the NCAA tournament by Georgia State. Soderberg was given his walking papers and Pat Richter once again reached down to the ranks of Wisconsin mid-major ball for the program’s next head coach. At UW-Milwaukee he found a guy who had been even more successful in the state’s small-college ranks than Bennett had been. And, he’d once been a Badger, too.
Bo knows basketball.
Like Bennett, William Francis “Bo” Ryan, Jr., was born in Pennsylvania, but unlike Bennett, Ryan stayed there all the way through college at Wilkes University, where he was the star point guard. Ryan’s first college coaching job came at Dominican College in Racine, just south of Milwaukee, but the school closed after his first year. He returned to Pennsylvania but within a couple years was back in Wisconsin, hired by Bill Cofield as a UW assistant in 1976. Ryan rode the Badger bench under Cofield and then Yoder before accepting the head coaching job at UW-Platteville in 1984, even though he took a significant cut in pay.
That was five years after I graduated from UWP. During my time on campus in the mid- to late seventies, the Pioneers were competitive in the WSUC but always seemed to come up short against Anderson’s Eau Claire teams. When Ryan arrived in ’84 the program had suffered through several losing seasons. Ryan went 9-17 during his inaugural campaign at Platteville. He has not had a losing season since, anywhere.
The Pioneers compiled a record under Ryan that was nothing short of spectacular. In his 15 seasons at the helm, the team won the league title eight times and made it to the NCAA Division III Final Four five times, winning the championship in four of those appearances. Two of those title runs capped undefeated seasons. Ryan’s overall record at Platteville was 353-76 for an amazing .823 winning percentage.
After winning his second straight Division III title in 1999, Ryan moved up to UW-Milwaukee, a team playing in the same mid-major Division I league as UW-Green Bay. He led the Panthers to a pair of winning seasons and then came the phone call from Madison that led to his return, 17 years after leaving Yoder’s staff to take the reins at Platteville. Bo inherited a team from the Bennett/Soderberg era that was already pretty good, and he made it better immediately. His 2001-02 Badgers got a share of the Big Ten title, the program’s first since 1947, finishing 19-13 after losing to eventual national champion Maryland in the second round of the NCAA tournament. They won the undisputed league title in 2003, advancing to the regional semifinals of the tournament before losing to Kentucky.
And the good times just kept coming. The Kohl Center was sold out for every game and became known as one of the toughest venues for visiting teams in the country. The 2005 Badgers made it to the regional final, on the brink of the Final Four, before losing a tough game to eventual champion North Carolina. Ryan’s best player from the 2004 team, point guard Devin Harris, had left school after his junior season and was a first-round draft choice of the NBA’s Washington Wizards. If Harris had stuck around for his senior year, he certainly would’ve made the difference against Carolina and it might’ve been Wisconsin beating Illinois for the title a week later.
Ryan quickly gained a reputation as an excellent coach who recruited players who might not have been five-star recruits out of high school, but who spent time in his system and grew to be very good college players. I had gotten to know Bo when he was at Platteville and I was covering UW-La Crosse games on the radio. During the late nineties, my son Jim started attending his summer camps, first at Platteville, then one year in Milwaukee and finally in Madison. Every season when his Platteville teams would come up north to play at Eau Claire or nearby UW-Stout in Menomonie, I would take Jim’s youth league teams down to watch the game, and Ryan was always generous with his time, meeting with our kids and introducing them to his players. I would tell my kids to watch his players carefully as they played the game, even during warm-ups. His Pioneers, just like his later Panther and Badger teams, were never very flashy, but they played the game the way it was meant to be played: tough defense, precision offense, well-drilled fundamentals. They made their free throws, committed very few turnovers, and utilized Ryan’s own “swing” offense that got everybody into the action, from the low post to the three-point arc. One time at a summer camp I asked Bo about how his offense could be adapted for grade school kids and he was kind enough to take me to his office, draw out some diagrams and give me a couple books that told me exactly what I wanted to know.
Climbing back to the Final Four.
The Badgers kept winning under Ryan, but they always seemed to come up short in the NCAA tournament, often losing to teams everybody (except the other team) expected them to beat. By the early years of this decade, with college basketball changing yet again, there was some grumbling among Badger fans that maybe Ryan should think about hanging up his clipboard. He was in his mid-60s now, after all, and it seemed that the five-star recruits were all going elsewhere, to schools that might relax their academic standards and allow them to showcase their individual talents for one or two years before they jumped to the NBA. Wisconsin was good enough to win the occasional Big Ten title, but not good enough to win it all in today’s game, it was said. Ryan became known as the best major-college coach never to make the Final Four.
The nadir came in 2013, when the Badgers could manage only a tie for 4th in the Big Ten and were ousted by Mississippi in their first NCAA tournament game to finish 23-12. That team featured three seniors who epitomized Wisconsin basketball under Ryan: Jared Berggren, Mike Bruesewitz and Ryan Evans were unheralded high school players who became stars by their senior season and key players on a strong team. Not quite strong enough, though.
Then came the 2013-14 season, and everything changed. The team took advantage of an August exhibition tour of Canada, where they went 4-1 against some tough semipro and college teams, and began to gel. In the second game of the regular season the Badgers beat Florida, then ranked 11th in the nation. A week later, junior center Frank Kaminsky had a breakout game against North Dakota. A gangly 7-footer from the Chicago area who had played sparingly in his first two seasons behind Berggren, Kaminsky ripped the nets for 43 points against the Fighting Sioux, the highest total in the program’s “modern” (post WW2) history, eclipsing the 42 scored by Ken Barnes against Indiana in 1965 and equaled by Finley against Eastern Michigan in 1994. Kaminsky displayed some deft footwork in the low post, a deadly shot from the three-point arc and exceptional ball-handling skills that he’d picked up while playing guard in high school before a growth spurt.
Although he’d been a second-team all-state pick by the Associated Press, Kaminsky didn’t garner much notice coming into college. One of his teammates did, however. Sam Dekker led Sheboygan Lutheran to the Wisconsin state Division 5 title as a senior in 2012, garnering All-State and All-American honors, as well as being named the state’s Mr. Basketball. At 6-7 and growing, Dekker was a perfect complement for Kaminsky, and the team’s guard corps was led by junior Traevon Jackson, the son of former Ohio State and NBA star Jim Jackson, along with sharp-shooting Ben Brust and defensive stopper Josh Gasser, who had redshirted the previous season after suffering a knee injury. All told, of the 16 players on the roster, all but one hailed from the upper Midwestern states of Wisconsin, Illinois, Minnesota, Iowa and Ohio. They were Ryan’s kind of kids, and they were winning.
The Badgers won their first 16 games and were ranked as high as third in the nation, but a mid-season slump of five losses in six games cost them a shot at the Big Ten championship. They finished 12-6 in league play and lost to Michigan State in the league tournament semifinals. Another NCAA at-large bid was a sure thing, but with the memory of the Mississippi loss still fresh, we Badger fans weren’t too terribly confident of a deep run. After a first-game blowout of American University, the Badgers went up against an athletic Oregon team, just the type of outfit that always gave Wisconsin fits in the tournament. But this time things turned out differently. Playing before a roaring sellout crowd in Milwaukee, the Badgers came from behind to beat the Ducks, 85-77, advancing to the West Regional semifinals in Anaheim, Ryan’s sixth trip to the Sweet Sixteen in his 14 years at the helm. In the next game, against highly-regarded Baylor, the Badgers sliced up the Bears’ vaunted zone defense for an easy 69-52 victory. After the game one of the TV commentators said he felt like he should send a check to Bo Ryan because he had just witnessed a first-class coaching clinic. The talking heads were starting to notice Wisconsin. In the regional final against 4th-ranked Arizona, the Badgers gutted out a one-point win in overtime, and for the first time ever they were headed to the Final Four under Ryan.
The Final Four was held at the Dallas Cowboys’ palatial football stadium in Arlington, Texas, and the Badgers were matched against the epitome of modern-day college basketball, Kentucky. The Wildcats’ coach, John Calipari, had established a reputation of luring high school superstars who were only on campus for a year, maybe two, before heading to the pros. He’d won a national title in 2012 with a roster that featured five freshmen and sophomores who left school right after the championship game win over Kansas to get ready for the NBA. Many fans viewed the UW-UK showdown as a matchup of the “traditional” college team against a modern club that was really more of a minor league pro team. Before nearly 80,000 fans and millions more watching on TV, the game went down to the wire. Kentucky freshman Aaron Harrison hit a long 3 over Gasser in the final minute to give the Wildcats a one-point lead. With the clock running down, Wisconsin’s Jackson drove into the frontcourt and had an open twelve-footer at the buzzer that bounced off the glass, off the rim and out. The Badgers’ season was over at 30-8. Two nights later, Kentucky lost to Connecticut in the championship game.
Although terribly disappointed with the loss, the Badgers and their fans were already stoked for another banner season. Only one starter, Brust, would be lost to graduation, and he would be replaced in the lineup by Nigel Hayes, a talented forward from Ohio who had played well off the bench as a freshman. Heading into the 2014-15 campaign, UW was a near-unanimous choice to win the Big Ten title and Kaminsky, coming off a stellar NCAA tournament, was a pre-season All-American pick and a leading candidate for Player of the Year honors.
The road to Indianapolis.
The stars certainly seemed to be in alignment for Wisconsin entering Ryan’s 15th season in Madison. Right from the start, people were talking about a rematch with Kentucky in the Final Four. Calipari had managed to persuade several of his top players to actually stay in school for another season, and added yet another stellar recruiting class. In the Big Ten, Michigan State, coached by the wily Tom Izzo, would be the Badgers’ top challenger, along with league newcomer Maryland, which had left the powerful Atlantic Coast Conference. The team started 7-0, including three straight wins in the prestigious Battle for Atlantis tournament in the Bahamas, before Duke came to the Kohl Center for a showdown on December 3rd.
The Badgers were ranked second in the nation heading into the game, and the Blue Devils were fourth. A perennial contender for the national title, Duke was coached by Mike Krzyzewski, who had enhanced his already-stellar credentials by leading the USA Basketball national team, comprised of NBA stars, to gold medals in the previous two Olympics (2008, ’12) and World Cups (2010, ’14). A one-time traditionalist who had played for Bobby Knight at West Point, Coach K, as he was universally known, had recently started to embrace the one-and-done recruiting philosophy of Calipari and other coaches. From the time he took over the Duke program in 1980 until 1999, not one of Krzyzewski’s players had left school early for the pros, and that included some of the best players in college ball at the time, like Christian Laettner, Grant Hill, Danny Ferry and Shane Battier. But after an upset loss to Connecticut in the ’99 title game, Duke’s three top players, all with eligibility remaining, declared for the NBA. Ever since then, Coach K had relaxed his recruiting standards and started welcoming kids who were clearly not interested in playing four years for him, much less working toward a degree. The team he brought to Madison for the December non-conference game featured three freshman starters who were widely assumed to be playing their first and only season for the Blue Devils. And they had a good night against the Badgers. Although Kaminsky outplayed Duke’s ballyhooed freshman 7-footer Jahlil Okafor, the rest of the Devils shot the lights out and Duke prevailed by ten.
The Badgers shook off the defeat, which dropped them down to fifth in the polls, and ripped off eight straight wins, including the first three games of the Big Ten campaign. But in that eighth game, at home against Purdue, Kaminsky suffered a concussion and was held out of the next game, at Rutgers. Although they would wind up finishing last in their inaugural Big Ten season, the Scarlet Knights took advantage of Kaminsky’s absence, and the loss of Traevon Jackson to a foot injury in the second half, to win by five. Kaminsky was back for the next game and sophomore Bronson Koenig, who had been highly recruited out of La Crosse Aquinas by Duke, among others, moved into the starting lineup to replace Jackson. The Badgers won 13 of their final 14 conference games, their only loss coming at Maryland on February 24, but despite the defeat they finished as undisputed Big Ten champions, the fourth regular-season league title in Ryan’s tenure. They added the Big Ten tournament crown with three more victories. In the championship game in Chicago, the Badgers rallied late in the second half to beat Michigan State in overtime. That victory, combined with an unexpected loss by Virginia in the ACC tournament two nights earlier, enabled the Badgers to snag the top seed in the West Region of the NCAA tournament, the program’s first-ever top seed. Virginia, coached by Dick Bennett’s son Tony, got a number-2 seed in the East and would wind up being bounced early.
To say the state of Wisconsin was excited about this team was an understatement. Everybody knew they would be talented, and with Ryan calling the shots they would never be out-coached, but as the weeks went on and victory piled upon victory, we began to see something even more important than exceptional basketball ability. Both Kaminsky and Dekker had turned down shots at the NBA after the 2014 season; in Kaminsky’s case, he would certainly have been a first-round pick with guaranteed millions awaiting him. Dekker was projected as a late first-round or early second-round choice. Both spurned the money and returned to campus. They had unfinished business, they said, thereby earning the admiration and respect of Wisconsinites, who appreciate people who take care of business. There were never any discipline problems, no issues regarding grades or off-court shenanigans that are so often a part of the modern college game. They truly seemed like a throwback bunch of young men who truly enjoyed being in college and were proud of the name on the front of their jerseys. Tellingly, Ryan’s teams have never had player names on their jerseys’ backs.
Meanwhile, Kentucky was having a monster season. The Wildcats finished the regular season undefeated, swept through the Southeast Conference tournament without much of a challenge and entered the NCAAs as heavy favorites to win the title. Many were saying this would be the first unbeaten Division I men’s team since Knight’s powerhouse 1976 team at Indiana. UK was the easy choice for number one overall seed, while the Badgers got the #4 overall, guaranteeing them a rematch in the Final Four semifinals, if they survived the early rounds.
They did, and with fewer challenges than expected. They went to Omaha for the first and second rounds and rolled to victories over Coastal Carolina and Oregon. Then it was further west to Los Angeles for the West Regional semifinals. North Carolina, ranked 15th in the nation and sporting a team of future NBA players, lay in wait. The athleticism and size of the Tar Heels was expected to give Wisconsin major problems, but Dekker’s 23 points and ten rebounds spurred the Badgers to a 79-72 victory. The regional final was a rematch with Arizona, which had been pointing for this game all season. Many thought the Wildcats, ranked fifth in the country, deserved the top West seed over UW. Kaminsky dominated the game with 29 points and the Badgers won, 85-78. They would carry a 35-3 record into Ryan’s second straight Final Four. Kentucky was waiting, a perfect 38-0, two wins away from college basketball immortality.
The biggest game of their lives.
The 2015 Final Four was played at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, continuing the NCAA’s trend to hold its showcase event in huge football stadiums rather than traditional basketball arenas. In 2000, the Final Four had also been in Indy, but at the smaller, Teflon-roofed RCA Dome, which was supplanted by “The Luke” in 2008. This particular stadium had been mostly kind to the Badger football team, which had won the first two Big Ten championship games there at the end of the 2011 and ’12 seasons. Just four months before this Final Four, though, the Badgers were drilled by eventual national champion Ohio State, 59-0. Four days later, UW football coach Gary Anderson abruptly resigned after only two years at the helm, taking the job at Oregon State. A lot of Kentucky basketball fans, and more than a few so-called experts in the media, thought the building wouldn’t be any kinder to Bucky’s basketball team.
The Badgers got out to an early nine-point lead but Kentucky came back to tie the game at halftime. Wisconsin countered Kentucky’s depth and athleticism with its usual disciplined style of play and sensational efforts from the team’s biggest stars, Kaminsky and Dekker. With 2:35 to go, UW got the benefit of a huge no-call when Hayes scored on a put-back shot under the basket even though the shot clock clicked to zero just before the ball left his hand. That tied the game at 60-60. After a Kentucky time out, the Wildcats put the ball in the hands of sophomore Andrew Harrison, whose twin brother Aaron had made the game-winning shot the year before. Harrison missed and Kaminsky grabbed the rebound, his tenth of the game. At the other end, with the shot clock winding down, Dekker faked a drive into the lane to sucker the Wildcat defense, then stepped back beyond the arc and lofted a shot that was nothing but net and gave the Badgers a 63-60 lead with 1:44 to go.
All year long, Badger fans had relished the chance to match up their veteran team with Kentucky again. Yes, UK had prevailed, just barely, in the 2014 game, but only because Jackson’s last shot was just a hair off the mark. This time, we thought, our veteran players will stay cool in the final minutes and Kentucky’s much-lauded youngsters will crack. And that’s exactly what happened. After Dekker’s dagger three, he lured Kentucky’s Trey Lyles into a charging foul, giving the ball back to Wisconsin. There was still 1:25 to go and all the Wildcats had to do was get a defensive stop and they’d have plenty of time to tie or maybe win the game, just as they had a year earlier. But this time they couldn’t handle the pressure. With 1:06 on the clock, Dekker was fouled by Aaron Harrison. He made the first free throw but missed the second, leaving the score at 64-60, and UK grabbed the rebound. They needed a quick score and another defensive stop to have a chance. Aaron Harrison scored on a layup with 56 seconds left, drawing a foul from Kaminsky in the process. Harrison made the free throw to pull Kentucky within 64-63. Again, the oh-so-cool Badgers worked the ball around, and with 25 seconds to go Kaminsky was fouled. The big fellow, who had been named the college Player of the Year the night before, had always been a fine free throw shooter (78.0% for the season) and he drained both shots, boosting the Badger lead back to three. Bo Ryan called a timeout to set his defense.
Calipari wanted the ball to go down low to his big man, Karl-Anthony Towns, who had been holding his own against Kaminsky all night. Towns went to the hoop and drew a foul from Kaminsky. He made the first free throw, cutting the Badger lead to 66-64, but missed the second, and Kaminsky snagged the rebound and passed to Koenig, who was fouled by Aaron Harrison. Two years earlier Koenig had been playing against small schools like Little Chute and Lodi in the state high school playoffs. Now here he was with a chance to virtually sew up a victory against one of the best college teams ever assembled. With 13 seconds on the clock, Koenig made both free throws.
Now down by four, Kentucky’s collapse was completed when Aaron Harrison, he of the game-winning trey a year earlier, air-balled one from beyond the arc and the ball went out of bounds to Wisconsin. Harrison fouled Koenig on the in-bounds pass, and at the other end Koenig missed the first free throw but made the second. Towns committed a quick turnover and Kaminsky wrapped up the night with two more free throws. The final was 71-64, and the Badgers and their fans went wild.
In the final two minutes of the game, Wisconsin’s experience showed. The Badgers attempted only one shot from the field in that span, Dekker’s three with 1:44 left. They made eight of ten free throws and committed no turnovers. Kentucky, on the other hand, was one of three from the field, shot only three free throws (making two), and turned the ball over twice.
Almost forgotten in the tension of the game was the fact that in the first semifinal earlier in the evening, Duke had rolled over Michigan State, 81-61. Big Ten fans had been hoping for a Spartan victory and a possible all-Big Ten final, but I was a bit wary of that; the Badgers had already beaten Michigan State twice, and beating a Tom Izzo-coached team three times in a row is no easy feat. On the other hand, Duke would have confidence from their December win in Madison. But we would worry about that later; on this night, everyone wearing red basked in the euphoria of the biggest win in the last 74 years of Badger basketball. The next day, Bo Ryan and his staff would start figuring out how to beat Krzyzewski.
The day in between the big games.
The Wisconsin-Kentucky game was the number one topic of conversation in the sports world all day on Sunday, April 5th. Duke’s win over Michigan State was almost forgotten. Some of the reporting was not very favorable to Kentucky. Wildcat fans had engaged in a near-riot in the streets of Lexington after the game; fights broke out, along with some small fires, and 31 people were arrested. In the post-game press conference, Kentucky player Andrew Harrison referred to Frank Kaminsky with a racial slur that was picked up by the microphone; Harrison later apologized publicly and called Kaminsky to explain himself. Frank just laughed it off, but a lot of Badger fans weren’t quite as forgiving. Just one more example, we said, of how our guys are different from theirs.
By contrast, the hundreds of Badger fans who celebrated on State Street near the UW campus in Madison were joyous but peaceful. There were no arrests and no property damage. In Indianapolis, fans crowded the team hotel lobby and cheered their heroes when they arrived from the stadium. Badger players talked respectfully of their Kentucky opponents at the press conference. To say all was good in Wisconsin that first Sunday of April would be a serious understatement.
Sue and I had watched the game on TruTV, taking advantage of an innovative idea by the TV networks to show a nationwide feed of the game on one channel while devoting two other channels to team-specific feeds. This was the second year in a row of this experiment and it’s certainly turned out well. At the mic for the TruTV Badger TeamCast was Wayne Larrivee, the radio voice of the Green Bay Packers who also calls basketball games on the Big Ten Network. Providing color commentary was Mike Kelley, one of the stars of UW’s 2000 Final Four team. At church on Sunday morning I talked to some fans who had watched the national feed and they remarked that the announcers sounded almost disappointed in Wisconsin’s win. I could understand that; if I was a broadcaster who was thinking I had a good chance to call a game featuring a team going for an historic undefeated season, I might be a little upset if the game didn’t happen.
Overall, though, basketball fans throughout the country were glued to their TVs. The game was the highest-rated basketball broadcast in cable TV history, with a 24 share, indicating that nearly a quarter of all TVs in the country that were on at the time were tuned into the game. The numbers were 48% higher than those of the 2014 game, and nearly 54% higher than the average share garnered by last season’s NBA Finals series between San Antonio and Miami, won by the Spurs in five games.
Many sportswriters were also stunned, although a few of the smarter ones had said all along that if anyone had a shot at Kentucky, it would be the big, tough, veteran Badgers. Some of the writers even came out and admitted they wanted Kentucky to win, no doubt having already composed their hosannas to the 40-0 Wildcats that would be published on Tuesday. All they thought they’d have to do would be to insert the final score of the title game, write a few lines about the gallant effort put forth by the losers, and revel in the glory of Calipari’s masterpiece. Now that would never happen, and it would probably be a long time before another unbeaten team made it this far. Back in 1976, there had actually been two undefeated teams who reached the Final Four: Knight’s Indiana Hoosiers, who wound up winning the title, and the Scarlet Knights of Rutgers, who lost to Michigan in the semifinal and then again to UCLA in the consolation game. (The NCAA axed the meaningless third-place game a few years later.) Since ’76, only three other teams had even made it to the NCAA tournament unbeaten: Indiana State, featuring superstar Larry Bird, lost to Magic Johnson and Michigan State in the epic 1979 title game; UNLV, gunning for its second straight title, came into the 1991 Final Four a perfect 34-0 and was upset by Duke in the semifinal; and just last year, Wichita State carried a 35-0 record into the tournament but was beaten by Kentucky in the Round of 32.
By Sunday afternoon, things were calming down and the daunting challenge of Duke had to be faced. Meanwhile, two Badgers were in line for individual honors. Frank Kaminsky had already been named Player of the Year by the National Association of Basketball Coaches, and the day before the Kentucky game he was given the same honor by the Associated Press, the first Badger to gain that distinction since the AP began the award in 1961. Sunday night in Indianapolis he accepted the Naismith College Player of the Year Award. But earlier in the day word came that Bo Ryan would not be announced the next day as an inductee to the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame. Ryan had already been bested by another coach for AP Coach of the Year honors. And who was the guy who got the AP award and was also the only active coach to get a Hall nod? You guessed it, Kentucky’s John Calipari.
Badger fans weren’t particularly pleased by Ryan getting aced out for the Hall, although it’s considered inevitable that he’ll get there eventually, but to give that high honor to Calipari was upsetting. In his previous collegiate jobs, at Massachusetts and Memphis, Calipari had won Coach of the Year awards while at both schools but his teams had also been forced to vacate victories due to eligibility issues involving their star players; Marcus Camby was found to have accepted thousands of dollars in cash from an agent while at UMass, and Derrick Rose’s Memphis entrance exams were fraudulently taken by someone else. Both players left college for NBA riches with barely a fare-thee-well for the wreckage they left behind. Calipari escaped NCAA sanction in both incidents. So far, his tenure at Kentucky had not been tainted in that way, but his one-and-done philosophy of recruiting rankled many traditionalists, including most Badger fans. In the previous three years, ten Kentucky players with eligibility remaining had left early for the NBA draft, most notably Anthony Davis, who had starred as a freshman on Calipari’s 2012 championship team, won a gold medal with Team USA at that summer’s London Olympics, and was now finishing up another all-star season with the New Orleans Pelicans. It was a pretty good bet that a half-dozen or so of Calipari’s players on this year’s team wouldn’t bother showing up for class in Lexington on Monday.
Sunday night finally came. The Badgers had held a light workout during the day and went over film of the December loss to Duke. After the Kentucky win, Ryan had told a sideline TV reporter that he hadn’t even known Duke had beaten Michigan State until she mentioned it to him. But his assistants had already prepared game plans for both possible opponents, and that’s what the team worked with. As night fell on Indianapolis and Wisconsin, the Badgers and their fans hit the hay, knowing that the next day would bring Bucky’s biggest game in nearly three-quarters of a century.
The championship game.
The 2015 NCAA men’s championship game will go down in college basketball lore as a matchup of two of the best coaches ever to stalk the sidelines. On one bench was Bo Ryan, with 387 career wins at the Division I level and an overall collegiate record of 740-228 (.764). On the other, Mike Krzyzewski, with an all-time record of 1017-310 (.766), all at the D-I level. In his 31st season as a head coach, Ryan had now brought his teams to five national championship games and seven Final Fours. Krzyzewski was capping his 40th season by reaching his 12th Final Four and ninth title game. Both coaches had won a division national title four times. Both coaches were also well-known for their preference for college ball over the pros. Ryan had never seriously been mentioned as a possible NBA coach, but Krzyzewski had turned down serious NBA offers five times, including a $40 million deal with the Los Angeles Lakers that would’ve included part ownership of the team. The coaches and their teams had met three times head-to-head in the Big Ten-ACC Challenge Series, which began in the 1999-2000 season, with Duke winning in December 2007 and ’14, and the Badgers prevailing in ’09 when Duke came into the Kohl Center ranked fifth in the country and Ryan’s unranked Badgers won by four.
When you have two supremely smart and experienced coaches facing off, and the talent levels are more or less equal, the games often become more like chess matches than athletic contests. Many modern basketball fans aren’t thrilled by this; they prefer up-and-down, high-flying action. Watch any highlight reel or promo spot on ESPN and you’ll see dunk after dunk, because the casual viewer evidently isn’t that much interested in old-fashioned things like precision passing and tough defense. As we settled back on this Monday evening to watch the Badgers battle the Blue Devils, I had a suspicion that coaching strategy would ultimately determine the victor. It did, but not in the sense that one might think. The big question was how Krzyzewski would help his young but talented Blue Devils, with three freshmen starting, cope with the experience of the Badgers, who for most of the season had started four seniors and Dekker, a junior who had been a starter practically since arriving on campus. The answer would soon become apparent.
Unlike the semifinal game, which saw UW get off to a near-double-digit lead in the first half, this one was close. Duke led by as many as six but the Badgers came back to take a two-point lead into the final two minutes before intermission. Duke tied the game on a layup by junior Amile Jefferson with 1:13 left, and the Badgers had two chances to take the lead but Koenig and Dekker both missed threes in the final minute. At halftime the score was 31-31. That was the most important statistic. The next most important was total fouls: seven on Duke, only two on Wisconsin. In the post, Kaminsky was once again outplaying Okafor, the much-hyped Duke freshman who had been a distant runner-up to the Badger senior in most of the Player of the Year ballots. At halftime, Kaminsky had seven points and seven rebounds, one block, one assist, one steal, one turnover, and no fouls. Okafor had six points but only two rebounds, and had committed two fouls and two turnovers.
There were no TeamCasts on TV for the championship game; CBS had the game all to itself, with Jim Nantz calling the play-by-play for the 25th straight year. His analysts were Bill Raftery, a former Seton Hall coach who was in his 33rd year of providing college hoops commentary, and Grant Hill, who had played on Krzyzewski’s 1991 and ’92 championship teams at Duke before a long NBA career. When Okafor went to the bench with his second foul and 4:47 to go in the half, both analysts said this would be a great time for the Badgers to put the ball in Kaminsky’s hands, but the big fellow took only one more shot before the halftime buzzer. UW had apparently missed out on a golden opportunity.
The next day, I read a blog post by a sportswriter who said he was sitting next to a well-known Division I coach during the first half. The coach mentioned the team foul discrepancy to the writer at halftime, and noted how Krzyzewski was working the officials on the sidelines. “Watch this,” the coach said as the second half began. Coach K had built a well-deserved reputation for, shall we say, persuading the referees that they should perhaps look at things a bit differently in the second half of the game. In the Big Ten, Ryan has always been considered one of the league’s top ref-baiters, although Michigan State’s Tom Izzo is the acknowledged champ. All season long, the Badgers had been known as a team that committed very few fouls. In fact, they led the nation for the season in fewest personals per game (12.5), so they were ahead of their pace in this most important of games. Duke, on the other hand, averaged 15.6 per game, so the Blue Devils were right on course.
Koenig opened the scoring in the second half with a three on an assist from Kaminsky, but was whistled for a foul just seconds later. In the first half, a total of 8:45 elapsed before Wisconsin’s first foul; in the second half, it took only 44 seconds. I said to Sue, “We’re in trouble now.”
Still, Wisconsin bumped its lead to 42-37 on a Koenig jumper with 16:20 to go. Six seconds later, Nigel Hayes was whistled for a foul on a layup attempt by Duke freshman Tyus Jones, a Minnesota native who had spurned UW, along with his home-state Gophers, to play for Krzyzewski. Jones made both free throws. Dekker, who was having an off night, missed a three and the first TV timeout at the 15:46 mark saw the Badgers clinging to a three-point lead. Bucky came out of the huddle and went back to work, though, and after a Kaminsky layup boosted the lead to 48-39 with 13:17 to go, Krzyzewski called a timeout.
The next 94 seconds were the most crucial of the game. Wisconsin had a chance to crush the Devils with another run. I had the distinct feeling that despite the frequent whistles, the Badgers were showing they could play through it and if they could get the lead up to 12 or 15 by the ten-minute mark, they would put enormous pressure on the Duke freshmen and that might just decide the game. But after the Duke timeout, Grayson Allen took charge for the Blue Devils. The freshman from Jacksonville was the least-heralded of the Duke youngsters, but over the next 1:34 he made a three, stole the ball from Kaminsky, then later made an old-fashioned three when he scored on a layup, drawing a foul on Dekker, and converted the free throw. Wisconsin senior reserve forward Duje Dukan, who had been one of the team’s steadiest players all year, committed another foul, the third whistled against the Badgers in this short stretch, with 11:43 left, and after the TV timeout Allen made two more free throws to cut the UW lead to 51-47. Jones converted another three point play on a Koenig foul with 10:42 to go and Ryan called time. Duke had cut the Wisconsin lead down to 51-50. In that 2:35 span, the Badgers had been outscored 11-3 and had been called for four fouls.
All season long, this Badger team had refused to fold under pressure and eventually had been able to bend almost every opponent, even mighty Kentucky, to its will. Such is the value of leadership and experience, especially when so much of your opposition is challenged in those areas. The difference between a college senior and a freshman is only three years, maybe four if the senior has had a redshirt year; later on, when those players are around age 30 and have several professional seasons under their belts, the difference is not that great. But in college ball it is huge. Of the seven Badgers who saw action in the game, four were seniors, one a junior and two sophomores, Koenig and Hayes. Duke started three freshmen, one sophomore and one senior, guard Quinn Cook, who would contribute six points and four rebounds. Off the bench, Krzyzewski utilized two juniors (who combined for two points and seven rebounds) and the surprising freshman Allen, who would finish with 16 points. Despite the difference in age and experience, in this critical mid-half stretch, the Blue Devil youngsters outplayed the Badgers enough to get back into the game. Those four fouls whistled on UW certainly helped Duke’s cause.
Still, it was anybody’s game midway through the half. On their second possession after the timeout, Kaminsky converted a three-point play thanks to Okafor’s third foul. Those would be Wisconsin’s last points until Kaminsky laid one in 4:10 later. Duke called time with 4:06 to go after a Jones trey gave them a 59-58 lead. Following the last media timeout at the 3:16 mark, Duke ran a nifty inbounds play to Okafor, who made a layup and drew a Kaminsky foul, but he missed the free throw and the Devils’ lead stood at 61-58 with 3:14 to go.
Another cold stretch doomed Wisconsin. Kaminsky missed a layup, grabbed the rebound but missed the put-back. At the other end, Okafor made his biggest play of the game, rebounding a miss by Justise Winslow and scoring to give Duke a five-point lead with 2:08 to play. After Koenig missed, Jones made the dagger, a long three that gave the Blue Devils a 66-58 lead. Kaminsky came right back with a trey of his own and Ryan called another timeout with 1:09 to go and trailing 66-61. The Badgers needed Duke to make a mistake, like shooting too quickly after the timeout instead of running down the shot clock, and they did when Jones missed a layup just two seconds after the inbounds pass. Kaminsky got the rebound and the Badgers hustled down the floor. Hayes jammed one home with 50 seconds left and the deficit was down to three. Duke called its last timeout.
The Badgers were clearly running out of gas; their barn-burner against Kentucky had taken a lot out of them, while the Duke players had gotten some rest in the second half of their blowout win over Michigan State. Tired as they were, the Badgers were still within striking distance. Even if Duke ran the shot clock all the way down to the nub, UW could still get the ball back with fifteen or so seconds to go, enough time to get a game-tying three-pointer or maybe go down low to Kaminsky against Okafor and hope for an old-fashioned three. In overtime, you had to like Bucky’s chances. With 35 seconds to go, Jones was fouled by Hayes in the act of shooting and made both shots. Koenig missed with 18 seconds to go, Winslow grabbed the rebound and was fouled by Gasser. He missed both shots, but Dekker and Hayes both missed three-point attempts at the other end. The buzzer sounded, Duke had won 68-63 and the Blue Devils and their fans celebrated Kryzyzewski’s fifth national championship.
It seemed like the entire state of Wisconsin was exhausted on Tuesday. As a fan, I had poured a lot of emotion into this team and its run to the title game. Just three months earlier we’d been through the ringer with Bucky’s football team. After the blowout loss to Ohio State in the Big Ten title game and the coach’s surprising–and yet, by some, welcomed–resignation a few days later, former coach and current athletic director Barry Alvarez took over the team as it prepared for the Outback Bowl against Auburn on New Year’s Day. Against a team that had been to the national title game just a year earlier, the Badgers fought tooth and nail and won in overtime, 34-31. The victory capped an 11-3 season and, most importantly, ended a streak of four straight losses in bowl games. With the subsequent hiring of former Badger quarterback and assistant Paul Chryst as the new head coach, UW football was back on the right track.
I was surprised by how emotionally spent I was after watching that game. The NCAA tournament run was far more stressful. In the final game, maybe the Badgers were finally feeling the pressure. Dekker scored only 12 points and was 0-for-6 from behind the arc. Gasser had been averaging six points a game but didn’t score at all. If Dekker gets just two threes, or Gasser scores his average, UW would’ve been bringing the trophy back to Madison. The real critical factor in the game, though, was the turnaround in fouls. After committing only two in the first half, the Badgers were whistled for 13 in the second. Krzyzewski had long been acknowledged as the master in intimidating officials, and it worked again.
After the game, Bo Ryan was criticized by some in the media for making a reference to Duke’s “rent-a-player” philosophy. The next day, Krzyzewski went on the CBS News morning show to defend his recruiting, saying that any Duke student was free to leave school early for a good job offer, so why not basketball players? Well, he has a point, sure, but let’s be honest here. How many computer science majors come to Duke and then leave for Apple after one or two years? Not very many, certainly not more than a third of the students in the program. Within days of the victory, Duke freshmen Jones, Okafor and Winslow announced they were quitting school to go into the NBA draft. Duke finished the season with only eight scholarship players on its roster, and now better than a third of them were turning pro. I’d venture to say that Duke’s other undergraduate programs didn’t have quite that high of a departure rate.
The contrasts between Wisconsin and the teams it faced in the Final Four, Kentucky and Duke, were on display all the way through, and perhaps that will nudge the national conversation into areas where it should go. Such as, just why do we have intercollegiate athletics? College athletes have been turning pro since the days of Jim Thorpe and Red Grange, so it’s nothing new, but the exodus of players leaving school before their eligibility is done has turned from a trickle to a flood in the last quarter-century. Football has held the line at three years. Baseball players, if they go to college, are not eligible for the professional draft until after their junior season. Personally, I’d be in favor of that rule for basketball. NBA people are constantly complaining about the one-and-doners lack of experience and polish. Most of them ride the bench for a couple years before turning into significant contributors, if they ever do at all. Instant stars like LeBron James, who entered the NBA right out of high school in 2003 before the current rule was in place, are extremely rare. James’s current teammate with the Cleveland Cavaliers, Kyrie Irving, left Duke after playing only 11 games in his freshman season due to injury. He was Rookie of the Year in 2011-12 and this season, along with James, he has the Cavs in serious contention for the NBA title.
The success of players like James and Irving, Kevin Durant, Anthony Davis and a handful of others inspire more and more kids to treat college as just a minor-league stop on the way to the big time. But most of the kids who enter early aren’t anywhere close to those guys. Many are like Ndudi Ebi, a Nigerian-British player who played high school ball in Texas and was the top pick of the Minnesota Timberwolves in 2003. He played in only 19 games over his first two seasons and was released; since then he’s been knocking around pro leagues in the Middle East and Italy. Or Rick Rickert, another Timberwolves draft choice, who quit the Gophers right after his sophomore season and was picked in the second round in ’03. Although he was a native Minnesotan from Duluth, who one would think would be given every opportunity to play with his home-state team and help sell tickets, Rickert didn’t even make the team. Like his erstwhile teammate Ebi, he’s been drifting between the NBA Development League, the league’s official minor league circuit, and pro teams in Europe and New Zealand. More recently there’s Archie Goodwin, who led Kentucky in scoring as a freshman in 2012-13, was drafted in the first round by Oklahoma City that summer and has spent more time in the D-League than on an NBA roster. On and on it goes.
There’s certainly nothing wrong with playing professional basketball, whether it’s in the NBA or in one of the many pro leagues overseas. You can make a pretty good living and if you manage your money wisely, you’ll be set for life even if your career ends by age 30, as most of them do. But few of these kids return to college and get their degrees. Why should they, some would ask? Well, why indeed? If you’re relatively wealthy without a degree, why bother to get one? Those advocating that side of the debate have a point. Then again, there are guys like Bobby Bell, an All-American football player at Minnesota who helped the Gophers win a national championship in the 1960 season. Bell’s senior season was 1962, and he was drafted the following spring by the Kansas City Chiefs of the AFL. He had an outstanding 12-year career as a linebacker, starring on the Chiefs’ 1969 Super Bowl championship team. Bell had left Minnesota a few credits shy of a degree and he always promised his father he’d go back to school and finish up. Finally, he did. Just this week, at age 74, he received his degree. Somewhere upstairs his dad is smiling. There’s something to be said for finishing something you start.
More importantly, though, the 2014-15 Wisconsin Badgers played the game the way it should be played, and they epitomized what major-college basketball used to be, before it became a farm system for the pros, before it became a programming vehicle to enrich TV networks, before millions were wagered on tournament brackets, before millions were spent on jerseys and caps and other apparel for which the players get nothing. (In other words, when it was like Division III ball still is.) Up here in the Badger State, we knew this all along, but Bucky’s inspiring run to the title game got noticed elsewhere, too. In the days after the Final Four, we saw appreciative articles like these: Wisconsin’s shift from happy-go-lucky to sadness and 23 Reasons Why Wisconsin Still Won.
Almost unnoticed by basketball fans outside the state, another Wisconsin team did win a college championship. UW-Stevens Point captured the Division III title on March 21 in Salem, Virginia, defeating Augustana College of Illinois, 70-54. The Pointers were a homegrown bunch, with 12 of their 13 players hailing from Wisconsin, and coached by another native, Bob Semling, who played quarterback at UW-Eau Claire and assisted Ken Anderson with the Blugold basketball team while an undergrad. Point’s title was the second straight by a team from the Wisconsin Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (the renamed WSUC); UW-Whitewater won the crown last year. In fact, since 1984, WIAC teams have won the Division III championship a total of 12 times, along with one runner-up finish. Included in that run are Ryan’s four titles at Platteville. Yeah, we know how to play the game up here.
Frank Kaminsky is expected to be among the first dozen or so players drafted by the NBA next month. Much to the disappointment of Badger fans, Sam Dekker announced he will not return for his senior season and will enter the draft. He is only the second Ryan player to leave early, joining Devin Harris from 2004. That’s two players in 14 seasons. By comparison, in the past four seasons 17 of John Calipari’s players have left Kentucky early. I had thought Ryan might hang it up after this season if they won the title, but he’ll be back for his 32nd season overall. He’ll have two starters returning as juniors, Koenig and Hayes, and some promising younger players to fill the other slots, including 6-9 forward Ethan Happ, a two-time all-stater in Illinois who redshirted this season and played Kaminsky very tough in practice, along with Riley Dearring and Jordan Smith, two sharp-shooting guards from Minnesota. Zak Showalter provided spark off the bench; he played at Germantown High School, one of Wisconsin’s premiere programs, where he was coached by his father Steve, who played for Ryan at Platteville. Although the two high school seniors who shared the 2015 Mr. Basketball award in the state, Rice Lake’s Henry Ellenson and Whitefish Bay Dominican’s Diamond Stone, both turned down UW scholarship offers to sign with Marquette and Maryland, respectively, Bo was able to snag a good recruiting class. (Ellenson was lured to Marquette when his brother Wally just happened to transfer there from Minnesota, where he’d been riding the bench, and Stone was rumored to have grade problems that would’ve prevented him from being admitted to UW. Both players are also said to be planning jumps to the NBA after one, maybe two seasons.) Among the incoming frosh will be Alex Illikainen, a 6-8 forward who averaged 26 points and 11 rebounds at his Minnesota high school before playing his senior season at an elite prep school in New Hampshire; Kahlil Iverson, a 6-5 forward from Ohio; and, just this week came a commitment from 6-10 Andy Van Vliet from Belgium. The 2015-16 Badgers may not be Final Four material–at least at the beginning of the season–but they’ll be solid contenders in the Big Ten, because the Badgers always are.
We took great pride in our team this season, and pride still matters.